COPPER & BRASS —The Chemical Engine Era!
FOR ALMOST the entire era of horsedrawn fire apparatus—a span of over 50 years from 1865 to 1920—the chemical fire engine was an important piece of apparatus in all well-equipped fire departments. It used soda and acid for pressure, and to a controversial degree, as an extinguishing agent.
For a well-remembered period during my early career as a fireman I was assigned to a horse-drawn chemical engine and can write with personal knowledge of this type of apparatus, with its large tanks of copper and almost as much brass work as a steam fire engine. The constant cleaning of the soda-acid solution from the copper, and the polishing of brass really got me down in those days of continuous duty.
With the advent of self-propelled machines with motor-driven pumps for applying water on fires from the apparatus tanks, the chemical reaction engines gave way to “booster” equipped units. Since then the designation of “chemical companies” has all but disappeared from fire service terminology.
The first known record of experiments with the application of physical forces— other than dousing with water—for fire extinction followed an occurrence in Linz, Germany, in 1666, when a blaze started in a wooden storage shed which contained some gunpowder. When the fire reached the powder, it detonated and completely extinguished the blaze, much to the amazement of the owner and others who had converged on the scene. The fact that little damage was done by the explosion was a particularly puzzling phase of the incident.
The same year there was another report of a fire in the bedroom of a German farm house where the farmer had a small quantity of gunpowder. When the fire reached the powder its explosion put out the blaze and in a few minutes’ time there was so little smoke the room was entered without discomfort.
The discussions and experiments arising from these incidents eventually resulted in the patenting of an extinguisher by Zacharias Greyl. He used the explosive force of gunpowder to throw water on a fire, combining the blasting effect of the explosion with water cooling. The phenomena involved was discussed in a paper published in Germany under the translated title of “Extinguishing Fires with Powder.”
Greyl’s device was a cylinder on wheels approximately 24 inches x 24 inches, which was almost filled with about 45 gallons of water, with enough space left for a 2-inch diameter metal tube filled with about 20 pounds of powder. The powder tube contained a fuse which could be ignited before rolling the extinguisher into the fire, or it could be placed so it would be ignited by the blaze.
A few years after Greyl’s death in 1720, a Major F. Atkins used the Greyl principle for extinguishing ship fires. It was reported that the German Admiralty was greatly pleased with its success. In later years, Hopfern, of Holland, and Godfrey, of Great Britain, duplicated and improved on the Greyl device.
In 1864 Dr. F. Charlier and A. Vignon, an engineer, of Paris, used a bicarbonate, water and acid combination for the first time. Subsequent developments of this principle were quite rapid, and records of the New York Fire Department show that soda-acid extinguishers were installed in all fire stations in 1868. These were placed adjacent to watch desks and were carried by men sent out on foot in answer to verbal alarms of minor fires.
The first chemical apparatus put in fire department service, and an interesting forerunner of the chemical engine, was the “fire extinguisher wagon” equipped with 10 hand extinguishers, commissioned by the Boston Department in 1871 and designated as Extinguisher Co. No. 1. Two more of the “fire extinguisher wagons,” each carrying 25 extinguishers, were put in service at Boston in 1872.
As far as we can learn from considerable researching the scarce contemporary literature, the Babcock Manufacturing Co. of Chicago was the first American builder of wheeled chemical engines for fire department service, their first chemical unit being delivered to the Chicago department in 1872. The following year Boston bought one each of the Babcock and Holloway chemical engines and embarked on a program which eventually gave them 12 chemical engine companies.
We have a copy of a house organ, The Babcock Fire Record, dated July 1874, in which these claims are made:
Carbonic acid gas is both the working and extinguishing agent, which, bulk for bulk, is 30 times as effective as water, the 200 gallons of the first class engine being equal to 6,000 gallons of water. Besides, it uses the only agent that will extinguish burning tar, oil, and other combustible fluids and vapors. One cylinder can be charged while the other is working, thus keeping up a continuous stream.”
The first Babcock engines were of the upright stationary-tank type. The acid was mixed with the solution by inverting a lead container. A hand pump was provided for refilling the chemical cylinders from water sourses.
Charles T. Holloway, Baltimore, entered the apparatus picture in 1873 with the sale of his first wheeled chemical engine to the Boston Fire Department. Throughout the whole horse-drawn era the Holloway was a popular type of chemical equipment. In later years, American-LaFrance furnished the Holloway as well as the Babcock and Champion chemical tank assemblies.
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THE CHEMICAL ENGINE ERA . . Continued from page 683
When F. S. Seagrave began the manufacture of apparatus at Detroit in 1891, his products included a horse-drawn double-tank chemical engine of the design then popular in the service. Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co., of Chicago, one of the principal builders of fire apparatus before the days of motorized equipment, were the successors to Babcock Company and up into the first decade of the 20th Century, were the largest producers of chemical units, building the stationarytank Babcock and revolving-tank Champion types.
One of the early chemical engines was the product of the Hydro-Pneumatic Fire Extinguisher Company and utilized stored compressed air for expelling the liquid, which was a solution of bicarbonate and water. Users were advised to always charge the cylinders with the solution as it had “ten times the extinguishing effect of untreated water.” This belief in the overwhelming superiority of the chemical engine over tanks of plain water long persisted in the minds of many experienced firemen.
Chemical apparatus came into use at a period when practically all fires to which fire departments responded were fought with streams from 2 1/2-inch hose lines stretched from hand-operated or steam fire engines. There were very few communities with adequate water mains and the difficulty and time consumed in getting water on a blaze meant that buildings were often beyond saving before the first stream was in action. The advantages of the new chemical engines were sensational, and for several years the manufacturers could not build them fast enough to supply the demand.
But like most all new and revolutionary ideas, the chemicals were vastly overrated, so much so, that many fire departments had to fight against a widespread belief that all hand and steam fire engines could be replaced with chemical engines carrying 100 to 200 gallons of water, which, when mixed with the magic chemicals and projected through a 1-inch hose, could put out any fire ordinarily extinguished by a fire engine and a 2 1/2-inch line.
At the beginning of the chemical engine era these units were often placed in the first-line category. After experience had given some indication of their limitations they were usually considered more as first-aid apparatus.
An example of the effective use of chemical engines as first-line equipment was their adoption by New York in 1874 as the principal protection of the newly annexed territory north of the Harlem River—now the Borough of the Bronx. On January 1, 1874, the New York Fire Department organized the 10th Battalion with eight companies to cover the 20 square miles and 10 scattered villages taken over from Westchester County. Because of the scarcity of water mains in the area, the Board of Fire Commissioners purchased four Babcock chemical engines for service north of the Harlem and the new 10th Battalion began operations with four chemical engines, two steam engines, and two ladder companies.
The chemical engines were of the double upright-tank type, with a third tank carrying a reserve supply of water. The 1-inch hose was on a reel under the driver’s seat. The chemical engine companies also had a second piece of apparatus called a water tender. By alternate use and recharging of the chemical cylinders, and refilling the tender at a convenient water source by means of the hand pump which it carried, or by steamer or hydrant pressure, operations could be continued indefinitely.
With the extension of the water mains these units were gradually replaced by steamers and hose tenders. The chemical engines became auxiliaries attached to other companies and the water tenders were dispensed with. This description of the use of the chemicals in the annexed Westchester territory of New York will give an idea of how the chemical engines provided some protection for countless communities not covered, or inadequately covered, by water mains.
In built-up sections of cities, however, the chemicals were utilized as first-aid apparatus, a function well suited to their limitations. In the metropolitan area, New York installed several one-horse two-wheeled engines with single tanks as auxiliaries to ladder companies. These were utilized principally on still-alarm responses to minor fires.
Some of the suburban engine companies organized in New York at various times, up to the 1900’s, began service with the standard double-tank chemical engine, drawn by two or three horses, or with combination hose and chemical wagons, and later acquired their steamers and regulation hose tenders. These cases are related as typical of the reliance sometimes placed on chemical apparatus, even in the larger cities.
Chicago was an extensive user of chemical engines, having as many as 13 two-wheel and three four-wheel engines in service at one time, principally as auxiliary apparatus in ladder companies. San Francisco was an early user and at the time of the Great Fire had seven chemical engine companies in the department. The present tank wagons in San Francisco are successors to them.
New Orleans was another of the larger cities where chemical engines were a major part of the apparatus equipment. At the beginning of the motorization program there were 11 chemical engine companies, and among the first pieces of motor apparatus were the straight chemicals propelled by air-cooled engines, the “seat over engine” Seagraves of 1907.
Advent of the “Combination”
Hose wagons began to replace hose reels about 1890. In the mid-nineties the Somerville, Mass., Fire Department put a chemical tank and hose reel on one of their hose wagons. They gave it a threehorse hitch, and originated a type of apparatus with which a large proportion of engine and hose companies were equipped during the last years of horse-drawn fire apparatus. It was the usual practice to furnish the combination wagons with either a 50 or 60-gallon tank, or two 35-gallon cylinders. About half of the horse-drawn ladder trucks were also provided with chemical tanks and hose.
Tlie first automobile apparatus usually followed the body designs of the combination hose and chemical wagons, and generally the early motor pumping units continued to be furnished with chemical tanks and reels of small hose.
In 1913, Charles H. Fox, of AhrensFox, conceived the idea of mounting a small-capacity front-end pump and water tank on a motor hose wagon, instead of the commonly used chemical tank, and gave the name of “booster” to the water tank and pump assembly. The original “booster” apparatus was placed in service in the Cincinnati Fire Department, and while the idea of putting a small stream of plain water on a fire through a “garden hose” was openly ridiculed by many fire officers who still thought that “chemicals” had extinguishing qualities not possessed by ordinary water, the “booster” grew rapidly in favor and soon displaced the chemical engines and chemical combination.
I well remember the 1913 convention of the International Association of Fire Engineers in New York, and inspecting the exhibits in Grand Central Palace. A chief of a large city fire department, who stood near me at the Ahrens-Fox “booster” display, was heard to say, “That thing will never replace the chemical engine.” How wrong he was!
Acknowledgment: Appreciation is extended to Fireman Paul F. Stolz, FDNY, assistant librarian, Fire Department Library, for research and translations.